Canine Search and Rescue

Written by Susan Bulanda

In recent years, canine search and rescue (SAR) has become popular. In the not-too-distant past, most people did not know what it was. For example, when people saw members of my unit with the K9 SAR logo on their uniforms, they would comment that it was nice that we rescued dogs.

Unfortunately, many people now think that being an SAR dog handler means that all you do is follow your dog through the woods or whatever environment you want to search. This is far from the truth.

They believe this because people still do not fully understand what SAR dogs can do, and have even less of an idea what it takes to be a member of a unit. In this paper, I will outline what it involves to become an SAR dog handler and the types of training available for the dog.

The most critical thing to understand about being an SAR dog handler is that you must be a rescue person first and foremost, fully qualified according to your unit’s specifications. The SAR dog handler is a rescue person who specializes in the use of the SAR dog. This is no different than the police officer who specializes in the use of the police dog or the military person who handles military dogs. SAR dog work is not a sport, and there are no dog sports that can take the place of proper SAR dog training. The environment that SAR dogs must work in is extremely different than any sport, and sport dog training will often hinder the dog in SAR work.  For example, sport tracking is held in a controlled environment with the time, distance, turns in the track and contamination specified.  In SAR work, none of these elements are controlled and a dog may be asked to follow scent that is very old and in highly contaminated situations.

The human element

The next most important thing to understand is that search and rescue handlers must be a member of a legitimate SAR unit. It takes a team effort to conduct a search successfully. There are many non-dog aspects of searching for a missing person. For example, the SAR dog/handler team is often the first responder. If they find the missing person alive and injured, they must keep the person alive until the medics or EMTs can assist. Often this means transporting the person out of dense forests or off of cliffs to an area where they can be transported to a hospital.

To successfully search for a missing person, the search manager or incident commander must be qualified in many disciplines. For example, they are required to understand lost person behavior so that they can determine the probable search area—where that person will most likely be. This is determined by many factors such as the person’s age, health, activities, mental condition, and the terrain features of the area. Then they are required to sector the area for manageable searching, and then assign the best team for each sector. These are only a few aspects of running a search mission. It is also important for the SAR dog handler to understand the methods used to analyze where to search.

Search skills

Some of the skills the SAR dog handler must have are to know how to grid their area to best utilize the dog. They must understand scent and how it works, clue awareness, site preservation if the search becomes a police matter, how to read a topographical map, how to determine their exact location on that map (even with GPS, map-reading is still a vital skill to have), and many other factors that can be encountered.

A good search dog handler will have training in water rescue (if there are bodies of water in their area), hazardous materials, disaster searching, water searching, and if the area requires it, confined-space and high-angle rescue work. They must also be able to determine their probability of detection (POD) to report to the SAR manager. The POD requires that the handler analyze how well the dog team searched the area so that the incident commander can determine if the area is cleared or needs to be searched by another team.

These are only some of the skills and training the handler must have to stay safe and keep the missing person safe. There are many more certifications that are required on both a state and federal level to be a certified K9 rescue handler.

Qualities of a successful SAR dog

Often when someone decides that they would like to be a part of K9 SAR, they hope to train their pet dog. This can work if the dog is the right type, is physically able, and has the desire to do this kind of work. Not all dogs are willing to do SAR work. Trying to force a dog to do SAR work only creates an unreliable dog, which can cost someone their life. Other people adopt a dog to train for SAR work. This is noble, but with no history about the dog, the adopter may not know whether their dog will be able to do the work. The last type of dog is one that is purchased as a puppy to train for SAR work. This is also not an exact science since it is hard to tell if the puppy will have the mental and physical ability when it matures. Many dogs do not make it as an SAR dog. The requirements are very rigid.

The individual dog must have, at a minimum, the following qualities:

  • Be healthy
  • Love people
  • Be safe around children
  • Be able to maintain calm in stressful situations
  • Be able to work off leash if required
  • Be able to work for eight or more hours

The dog must not:

  • Be nervous or timid
  • Be dog aggressive
  • Chase animals
  • Be fearful of strange situations
  • Be aggressive to humans

SAR disciplines

SAR dogs are trained in the following disciplines:

Airscent: The dog works off leash and searches for any human scent in an area.

Scent Specific: The dog works on or off leash and searches for and/or follows a scent that is identified by the handler. In the case of SAR, it will be the scent of a specific person.

Human Remains Detection (HRD): The dog is taught to find bodies and parts of bodies in situations of mass destruction, natural disasters, etc.

Cadaver Land/Water: Similar to HRD but the dog will search for bodies that are buried, drowned, or otherwise hidden or lost.

Avalanche: Finding people buried in the snow.

Disaster Live/Deceased: Dogs are taught to search for either live or deceased people in a disaster situation.

Each discipline has specific requirements for the dogs. For example, an airscent dog will quarter their area, find a person, return to the handler, give a signal, then lead the handler back to the person. In some cases, the airscent dog will stay with the missing person and bark until the handler arrives on scene. A disaster dog must give a passive signal and stay where the scent is, due to the risk of traveling over a debris pile. Often the disaster dog is controlled by the handler from a distance.

Dog training in SAR

Each unit has a head trainer in charge of instructing the handlers how to train their dogs. The problem with this is that many head trainers are not experienced dog trainers. They simply copy what they were taught by the previous head trainer. They use a “one size fits all” philosophy for their training technique. This is one reason many dogs fail to pass their certifications. Since the head trainer is not a professional dog trainer, they often do not know how to solve individual training issues, to tweak the method to suit the dog.

There are even fewer canine behavior consultants who are involved in SAR work. Often a dog has a training or behavior issue that could be solved by a behavior consultant whose input would enable the dog to be a good SAR dog. Instead, the dog is rejected because the person in charge of training the SAR dogs does not know how to solve the training or behavior issue.

Obedience training for SAR dogs is different. While the SAR dog must be under the control of the handler, it is important to understand that SAR dogs should not be trained in traditional obedience. They are taught to perform “intelligent disobedience.” An example of intelligent disobedience in SAR work would be when the dog indicates to the handler that they found something, and the handler does not believe the dog due to the environment they are in. If the handler tries to leave or call the dog off, the dog must disobey and insist that the handler investigate what was found.  Therefore, competitive and pet level obedience will often prevent an SAR dog from performing in the field.

The job of a trainer who is not a SAR person is to analyze the specific training issue and solve it. For example, an airscent dog might find the hidden subject but not come back and give the signal in a reliable manner. The trainer will only focus on why the dog is not returning to the handler as he should and come up with a solution.

Another problem that often arises is that many SAR dog handlers and units feel that if a professional trainer is not an experienced SAR person, they will not understand how to solve training problem. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sometimes it takes an objective view to identify the issue. A good behaviorist or trainer should be able to analyze what is happening and come up with a solution to the problem.

Most SAR units are all volunteer. Each dog handler pays all expenses for themselves and their dog. This includes the specialized equipment that is required for SAR work. They put in hours a week for years to train their dogs and keep them trained.

It is my hope that more certified canine behavior consultants and professional dog trainers will reach out to SAR dog units to volunteer their time and expertise to help solve training problems. You do not have to be a fielded handler or flanker (the person who goes with the dog handler on a search) to volunteer in a unit. Helping to train SAR dogs is a very rewarding and educational experience.


Susan Bulanda was first recognized as an accomplished dog trainer in 1963. She is a founding member of the National Search Dog Alliance, and has formed and run two canine search and rescue units. She was one of three judges selected to judge England’s first and second international Canine SAR competitions. Susan is an award-winning author; has lectured worldwide and has written hundreds of articles and many books. Her website and blog are: and